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All Aboard the Eastern Oriental Express

by:
Laurence Civil

Having been told by Christopher Charles Byatt, train manager of the Eastern & Oriental Express that traveling on the train was "The most civilized way to travel in Southeast Asia" I decided to join the train at Singapore's Keppel Railway Station to see for myself why this old-style form of travel had become a major draw in recent years.

I spent the first half of the journey in the observation car to watch the landscape and to view crossing that links Singapore with Malaysia. As the train left Johor Bahru I made my way through 18 carriages to my compartment in car C where I met my steward, Mon, who had been looking after me ever since we left Singapore.

Having shown me the features of my cabin, he asked me if he could serve afternoon tea. It sounded a wonderful idea and within minutes he returned with a large wooden tray line with immaculate starched linen. On the tray were a large silver teapot, a silver milk jug, a silver sugar bowl, a porcelain teacup and saucer, a porcelain plate full of small cakes, a silver cake fork and a linen napkin. I sat and worked with conviction through my afternoon tea. Twenty minutes later Mon returned and asked if I would like some more tea; how could I say no. After a short nap, I made my way to the bar car in the middle of the train for a pre-dinner drink and to met some of my fellow travelers. The bar allows customers to run a tab throughout the journey and settle their account on their last afternoon prior to arriving into Bangkok. Due to space restrictions in both dinning cars, lunch and dinner are served in two sittings. Lunch may be taken either at 12.15pm or 2pm and Dinner either at 6.30pm or 9.15pm.

I had chosen the second sitting, so having changed into formal dress, I had dinner just before we arrived into Kuala Lumpur. Dinner was sushi of smoked fish with a pickled cucumber salad, followed by poached lamb with baby vegetables and lemon grass bouillon. Dessert was warm mixed fruit tartlet with passion fruit sauce finishing with iced petit fours and tea or coffee. An a la carte menu is available at additional cost if required. The place setting was immaculate; The Eastern & Oriental Ginori chinaware is Italian designed and produced; the silver cutlery is by Orfeverie Chambly of France; and Spieglau crystal glasses are from Germany, complemented with heavily starched linen napkins.

After dinner I went to the bar car where a pianist was entertaining guests, while the Singaporean bar staff tried to encourage the guests to indulge in a little karaoke. The boys had written out the words of their favorite 50 songs. They wanted to do their bit to add to the guests' enjoyment and their efforts were appreciated.

Back in my cabin, the bed had been turned down with the woven E & O logo central in the sheets and an E & O Belgian chocolate on my bed. Some of the guests did have difficulty sleeping on their first night due to the motion of the train; I however slept the whole night through. The cabins are compact and the design of the bathroom and shower optimises the space. A few people have made less than kind comments about the shower comparing it to a broom cupboard but I found it perfectly adequate.

The next morning, Mon brought my breakfast tray with a silver pot of tea, milk jug and sugar bowl, a bowl of yogurt, some fresh pineapple and a basket of warm rolls and croissants with a selection of jams and butter. I was eating my breakfast as we passed through Malaysia's tea growing area of Ipoh. After breakfast we stopped at Butterworth for a two and a half hour tour of Georgetown on Penang Island. Motor coaches with guides were waiting to take us across the Straits by ferryboat. An orientation tour highlighted the colonial history of Georgetown with its busy waterfront and markets. We passed by the historic Eastern & Oriental Hotel that once formed the triangle with Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Rangon owned by the Sarkies brothers. There was a trishaw tour of the city returning to the ferry terminal where we met up with our coaches that were to take us back to Butterworth and the Eastern & Oriental Express. Once the train left Butterworth, lunch was served.

Lunch was a delicate lentil and okra soup; followed by a main course of fillet of sea bass in crispy potato skin with tomato and peanut salad. Each course was impeccably plated and served. I wanted to know how meals for 100 guests were planned and prepared with such limited space, so I asked executive chef Kevin Cape about the tastes of Eastern & Oriental Express.

Kevin joined Eastern & Oriental Express when the service was first started eight years ago to launch and implement the excellent selection of meals served on board. The planning of menus have a lead time of three months and are subject to constant tasting and fine tuning of each of the dishes. Many factors have to be taken into consideration. Firstly no pork is served out of respect for Malaysians. There are high volumes of American, European and Japanese guests, each with different and demanding expectations. The majority of the passengers are at an age where they have established which herbs and spices meet their taste range. Certain meats simply do not work on the train such as duck. Fish and lobster cannot be served as a main course. Veal doesn't work. Chicken cannot be served as a main course as it is seen as cheap meat by the Japanese market. Game is not liked by the Asian market because of its smell. Likewise, although the smell of roast lamb is popular in Europe, it is not so with the Asian market and can only be served odor-free as poached meat. Having work around all these consideration and have established which dishes can go onto the menu, examples are photographed since this has been found the most successful way to communicate to the kitchen staff the results that the chef is hoping to achieve. The train has two kitchens, which have restricted space. Three chefs working with three kitchen porters run each. Organization is the key to the kitchens working successfully as staff cannot move freely and must remain static during the meal service.

All items served on the train are taken onboard in their natural state. Careful planning of storage is another key factor. Calibration of the refrigerators to about -1C allows maximization of freshness without the risk of freezing the goods. Given 48 hours notice, virtually any catering request can be met. The only constraints are the size of the item being asked for. It is amazing how so many wonderful dishes can be created in such limited space and with so many cultural demands.

I returned to my cabin for afternoon tea as we went through Thai-Malaysian border at Keluar/Padangbadar. Guest arriving into Thailand on the Eastern & Oriental Express has a special Thai Immigration stamp with the name of the train, a nice touch.

With the formalities out of the way, I sit down with Christopher Charles Byatt, train manager of Eastern & Oriental Express, to find out how this incredible train actually worked. Christopher told me that having gained the necessary experience on The Venice Simplon Orient Express he was invited to come out to Asia to launch and manage the train. He described his job as being a very special experience, meeting people from every walk of life, including royalty, diplomats and top businessmen. He regarded it as his duty to identify the special needs of each and every passenger he and his team fulfill it That team is 70% Thai (all the cabin and restaurant stewards) and 30% Malay and Singapore (the kitchen and bar staff). There is no staff turnover as they all are extremely satisfied with their job.

With showers in every compartment and all those dishes to wash, the train is a big user of water. Each sleeper car has a capacity of 1, 200 liters of water and each service car has a storage capacity of 1, 700 liters of water. Those tanks have to be re-filled four times between Singapore and Bangkok. There are no laundry facilities onboard, so all the soiled bedding and linen has to be hidden away until the train arrives into Bangkok. Intentionally there are no communication facilities on the train for guests. This is apparently a service for ladies who have managed to drag their husbands away from the office to spend quality time together. Regrettably because of the narrow corridors and the general motion of the train, it is not possible for disabled or those with walking difficulties to travel on the Eastern & Oriental Express.

Dinner on the final night was salad of grilled sea scallop and chicken with a black bean dressing. Followed by medallion of beef with Szechwan peppercorn sauce and a deep fried bouquet of vegetable for the main course. The dessert was a delightful chocolate and hazelnut gateau, followed by petit fours and coffee.

I was awake as we went through a rainy, dark Hua Hin at 5am. Shortly after daybreak, Mon tapped on my door with my breakfast tray. We came to a halt at Kanchanaburi at 11am for our excursion to JEATH museum and POW cemetery at Chungkai. We returned to join the Eastern & Oriental Express at traveled on the cliff hanging Tham Kasae viaduct. From the observation car at the rear of the train it was possible to take some memorable photographs as the train snakes its way around the mountain. Finally the Eastern & Oriental Express crossed the Bridge over the River Kwai and came to a halt at Kanchanaburi station. As we pulled out of the station lunch was served. Tempura of tuna fish with a tomato and ginger dressing followed by Kashmiri-style chicken with a spinach sauce for the main course. This was followed by spring rolls of local fruit and then coffee. As we passed through Nakom Pathom, Mon served me afternoon tea for the last time. As we got closer to Bangkok's Hualampong station, good-byes and thanks were exchanged. I found the whole service memorable and the service impeccable.

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Email:  Lawrence Civil

Laurence Civil is a Food, Travel & Lifestyle writer based in Bangkok Thailand. Born in Kent in south of England, he started his working life in the UK's airline industry in 1976. This allowed him to indulge his passion for travel. In the early eighties, returning from a trip to the newly opened China, he started to write about his travel experiences. (More about this writer.)

 

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